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Leading by Example: US Refugee Policy at Home and Abroad

The United States exerts leadership on refugee issues both as a donor and as a recipient of refugees. This article examines current mechanisms by which the US exercises its leadership through three policy frameworks: financial support to the international system; resettlement of refugees and others in need of protection; and convening power to mobilize support for sustainable solutions. We argue that the United States chooses to be an influential member of the global refugee structure when (a) there are strong foreign policy linkages to crises that produce refugees and the refugees are seen as a manifestation of US policy interests; (b) there are highly visible humanitarian needs; (c) there is strong domestic support for action to address those needs; and (d) there is strong Congressional backing to exert US leadership. Generally, there has been bipartisan support for US engagement on refugee issues. While the US has supported other governments that wish to take the lead in critical global initiatives to enhance refugee protection, there is little likelihood that significant changes in refugee policy would succeed without US leadership. Therefore, continuing political leadership will be essential if the US refugee resettlement program is to respond efficiently and effectively to the growing forced displacement demands.

Refugees and migrants moving towards the railway station in Gevgelija.
Bogorodica, Gevgelija, Macedonia, August 21 2015: Refugees and migrants are moving towards the railway station in Gevgelija.


This report examines US leadership in the adoption and implementation of refugee policy at home and abroad. US policies prior to the adoption of the Refugee Act of 1980, or Refugee Act, were ad hoc and subject to a range of foreign and domestic pressures. The Refugee Act provided a framework for admitting and assisting refugees for resettlement, as well as offering asylum to those who reached the United States. While the act allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the United States, it selectively chose who would benefit from its programs. And, from the outset until today, the United States has used alternative avenues for admission of preferred applicants—including the most recent use of humanitarian parole of Afghans, Ukrainians, and others—and deterred the entry of asylum seekers coming on boats or clandestinely across the US-Mexico border.

US policy toward the international refugee system has also been ambivalent: on the one hand, US support for multilateral governance of global refugee issues has been crucial. On the other hand, the United States has sometimes taken unilateral actions that have weakened this international order. On the positive side, the United States has ratified the principal instruments that protect refugees; offered substantial financial support to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and other international humanitarian organizations; accepted tens of thousands of refugees each year for permanent resettlement; provided asylum and temporary protection to still further persons arriving spontaneously on its territory; put systems in place to offer protection to victims of trafficking; and pledged to help reduce statelessness. The United States is often identified as a vital proponent of an effective international system for assistance and protection of refugees and forcibly displaced persons. At the same time, its policies regarding refugees and other forcibly displaced persons—particularly those arriving at its borders—have sometimes weakened the international refugee scheme. Nor has its support for multilateral approaches to refugee assistance and protection been consistent. At times, the United States has relied on unilateral policies, whereas at others, it has worked cooperatively with other governments and international organizations to improve responses to refugee crises.

There is little likelihood that significant changes in policies or shifts in refugee priorities would succeed without US agreement to these practices.

Here, we examine the factors that explain when the United States chooses to act multilaterally through the institutions and decision-making procedures of the global refugee system. Considering the history of US engagement in global refugee issues, we argue that the United States chooses to be an active and influential member of the global refugee structure when several conditions come together. First, the United States has been more willing to take action and influence the decisions of others when there have been strong foreign policy linkages to crises that produce refugees, and the refugees themselves are seen as a manifestation of US policy interests. Second, clear and highly visible humanitarian needs help mobilize US leadership. Third, the United States is more likely to respond and encourage other governments to do so when important domestic constituencies support action to address those needs. Fourth, strong Congressional backing to exert US leadership facilitates Presidential decisions, especially when new resources must be appropriated for proactive policies and programs. More generally, there has been widespread recognition that supporting refugees and their host governments is also a security issue. Peace and security depend on stability and ensuring that those forced to leave their countries are not a destabilizing force serves national interests. Indeed, security concerns dominated the international community’s earliest efforts to develop a global system to protect refugees and ensure they would not destabilize post-World War I Europe. US refugee policy has also reflected the recognition that the country itself is a “nation of immigrants” and that welcoming the persecuted reflects US identity, although this has never been a consistent central motivation, as witnessed by recurring periods of anti-immigrant sentiment.

This article begins with a look at the historical role of the United States regarding the protection of refugees. The current mechanisms by which the United States exercises leadership internationally are then examined through three policy frameworks: 1) financial support to the international refugee system; 2) admission of refugees and others in need of international protection; and 3) using its convening power to mobilize support for solutions for refugees, and concrete commitments from other states. It concludes with an assessment of current US leadership, and its potential future role.

The Historical Role of the United States in Refugee Protection

The United States is the quintessential nation of immigrants, primarily founded by people seeking safety from persecution and religious intolerance, albeit often displacing indigenous populations living in settlement areas. From the 17th century through the first decade of the 20th century, the United States provided a safety net for millions of refugees, mainly from Europe, through its largely open-door immigration policies. While providing no specific admissions priority or distinctions for those whom we would now identify as refugees, the United States’ policies of religious toleration and Constitutional Bill of Rights proved to be a strong draw for those fleeing persecution, especially on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and political opinion. 

The first specific mention that fleeing persecution allowed for special treatment in US immigration law appeared in 1917 when legislation was passed requiring new immigrants to be literate in their native language. Persons fleeing religious persecution in their home countries, either by law or practice, were explicitly exempted from the requirement.[i] In the 1920s, the United States adopted numerical ceilings on admission for the first time, and established national origins quotas that made it nearly impossible for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to enter. The legislation also formally barred immigrants from Asia, more than thirty years after first adopted.[ii] No exceptions were made for refugees. In fact, during the Great Depression, administrative actions made it even more difficult for refugees to enter the country than other immigrants.[iii]

Failures in US leadership abroad on refugees were also apparent during this period. The Evian Conference of 1938 had a dual mission—to encourage countries to resettle refugees and to persuade Germany to establish an orderly emigration process. While the United States was the driving force behind the conference, US President Franklin Roosevelt made it clear that he was not asking any country, including the United States, to change its refugee policy. Subsequently, no government pledged to resettle significant numbers of refugees (except for the Dominican Republic’s rather vague offer).[iv] After the conference, in a speech to the Party Congress in Nuremberg in September 1938, Adolf Hitler pointed to the hypocrisy of the countries that condemned Germany’s policies but would not admit Jewish refugees.[v] The recognition that other countries would do little to save the Jews and other refugees paved the way for the Holocaust. 

After World War II, with concerns growing about Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe, and a large number of refugees in still unstable Western Europe, the United States adopted a series of administrative and legislative actions for the admission of refugees and displaced persons outside of the numerical limits and national origins quotas that remained in US legislation. As the Cold War intensified, refugee policies that supported US foreign policy interests enjoyed strong bipartisan support. In 1948, Congress adopted legislation that allowed the admission of 220,000 forcibly displaced persons.[vi] In 1950, the Displaced Persons Act was amended to increase the number of available visas and lessen some of the more restrictive aspects.[vii] The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 offered 205,000 entry slots for “any person in a country or area which is neither Communist nor Communist-dominated, who because of persecution, fear of persecution, natural calamity or military operation is out of his usual place of abode and unable to return thereto, who has not been firmly resettled, and who is in urgent need of assistance for the essentials of life or for transportation.”[viii] The legislation defined an escapee as any refugee who had fled a Communist country.

The Refugee Relief Act was set to expire when a new refugee crisis occurred—the flight of refugees after the abortive Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Before its expiration, the president authorized the use of 6,500 Refugee Relief Act visas for the Hungarians.[ix] Others would be admitted under a provision in the existing legislation that allowed the attorney general to admit foreign nationals to enter under his authority. Called the parole authority, it was used to admit 38,000 Hungarians between the end of 1956 and May 1957.[x] Again, the United States demonstrated flexibility in applying existing legislation to support its foreign policy objectives. In September 1957, legislation was passed to allocate visa numbers that had been authorized but not used in the Refugee Relief Act. The Refugee Escapee Act defined refugee escapees as persons fleeing Communist or Communist-dominated countries or countries in the Middle East because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on racial, religious, or political grounds.[xi] Although using persecution criteria found in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the US legislation restricted the refugee definition to those it found ideologically compatible—persons fleeing persecution by Communist regimes.

Again, the United States demonstrated flexibility in applying existing legislation to support its foreign policy objectives.

The parole authority continued to be used to address specific refugee emergencies. When the Cuban revolution installed a Communist regime, the United States opened its doors to one of the largest groups admitted under the parole authority. Unlike the European refugees, the Cubans initially came on their own, often on tourist visas. American policy was to parole them into the country and then, under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, convert their status to permanent residents. Later in the 1960s, the United States and Cuba negotiated an airlift that brought the Cubans directly to the United States. This pattern continued in the 1970s. The parole authority was also used to admit large numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union.[xii]

During this period, foreign policy concerning the international organizations assisting refugees dominated US leadership. The US government was not an early supporter of UNHCR. In fact, Congress passed legislation precluding the use of migration and refugee funds for organizations with Communist members. Though not explicitly focused on UNHCR, whose members were primarily non-Communist governments, this Cold War provision undermined US participation in a range of UN initiatives related to refugees and migrants.[xiii] Suffice it to say, in the absence of the largest donor of the United Nations and the largest resettlement country, UNHCR had a monumental task. At the time, UNHCR was not an operational agency but intended to focus on protecting refugees in Europe. 

In light of these developments, the United States and Belgium co-hosted a conference in Brussels to identify what additional efforts were needed to resolve the situation of refugees and others who wished to migrate. The Brussels conference brought together representatives from 23 countries. The conference resulted in the establishment of a Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe in 1951, which was later named the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and, still later, the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, by which it is still known.[xiv] The new organization was intended to buttress the interests of the West against those of the Communists. Only countries that believed in freedom of movement for their citizens could become members, which meant that Communist governments that restricted departures could not join. This provision complied with the Congressional bar on funding organizations that included Communist members.

In contrast to UNHCR’s lack of operational engagement, from the beginning IOM intended to serve its members and developed a robust operational capacity. IOM operated outside the United Nations for most of its life, joining the UN as a “related” organization in 2016. Over the years, the United States turned to IOM to provide operational support for refugee resettlement, and engage in many other tasks of interest to the US government. 

The United States also exercised a clear leadership role in establishing two other international organizations that assisted refugees—the United Nations Relief and Works Administration for Palestinian Refugees, or UNRWA, and the United Nations Korean Rehabilitation Administration, or UNKRA. UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide assistance and employment opportunities for Palestinian refugees. Until then, most aid was provided by the Red Cross and the American Friends Service Committee. UNRWA was specifically asked to take on two tasks: 1) to carry out direct relief and works programs, and 2) to consult with the host countries on measures to reduce the need for international assistance.[xv] The United States was an early donor to UNRWA and has generally been the principal supporter of its programs. 

UNKRA was established by the General Assembly on December 1, 1950, as a “special authority with broad powers to plan and supervise rehabilitation and relief in South Korea.”[xvi] The United States was the leading proponent of the new organization and based its support on three principal assumptions: 1) the establishment of the agency was predicated on military success and an early cessation of hostilities, 2) military success offered the prospect of creating a unified Korea under international auspices, and 3) Korea would require large sums of money in economic aid.[xvii] The military forces led by the United States retained broad authority over the relief operations within their theater of activities. The agency closed in 1958, largely because the United States decided to give its aid directly to the South Korean government.[xviii]

When the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution occurred in 1956, the United States shifted its views on UNHCR. US support for UNHCR was directly tied to its foreign policy interests. The General Assembly asked UNHCR to use its good offices to assist and protect Hungarian refugees, even though they were not covered under the 1951 Refugee Convention (as the events causing their displacement occurred after 1951). Then, in 1957, UNHCR was called upon to respond to the refugee crises generated by the Algerian conflict and the continuing flow of people from mainland China into Hong Kong. These crises were both sensitive situations, as the interests of the Security Council's permanent members were implicated—France in Algeria and China (at that time, the government in Taiwan held the seat) and Britain in Hong Kong. The organization was effective in its actions in each of these situations, and the United States, along with other major donors, allowed the growth of the organization’s mandate and budget.[xix] 

Significantly, the US did not ratify the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees until the late 1960s, preferring to operate under its domestic refugee legislation rather than international standards. In 1968, the US became a party to the Convention by ratifying the 1967 Protocol. However, it was not until 1980 that legislation was adopted to implement US commitments under the Refugee Convention. In fact, in asking for ratification of the Protocol, the Executive Branch assured Congress that US law already included a non-forcible return provision (non-refoulement) in the form of withholding of removal. Withholding is mandatory for those who can demonstrate it is more likely than not that they will be persecuted if returned to their countries of origin unless they have committed an aggravated felony resulting in a prison sentence of five years or more. The Refugee Act of 1980 adopted the 1951 Convention's definition of a refugee for the purposes of asylum and refugee resettlement, removing the language related to Communism.[xx] Through the remainder of the decade, however, the United States prioritized the admission of refugees from Communist countries.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States was more than willing to fund UNHCR’s operations when it served US foreign policy goals. Refugee camps in Pakistan, Thailand, Honduras, and elsewhere became safe zones for the families of military forces fighting against the regimes in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Nicaragua, respectively. At the same time, bipartisan political coalitions and important domestic constituencies in the United States generally supported spending for refugees. For example, many veterans of the Vietnam conflict, as well as religious and humanitarian organizations, supported the resettlement of refugees from Indochina.[xxi] Culminating this period was US leadership in 1979 to develop a comprehensive approach to address the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Unlike the disastrous conference in Evian, the Geneva conference called by the United States was a resounding success. Vice President Walter Mondale chaired the conference, demonstrating how seriously the United States government took the issue. The US delegation came with a pledge to resettle at least 14,000 Indochinese refugees per month until the situation stabilized. Its call for others to resettle refugees was met with widespread agreement. The conference also resulted in pledges from the countries of first asylum to keep their borders open, and from Vietnam to establish an orderly departure program for those wanting to leave the country. US financial resources would back up the agreement.[xxii] 

US Leadership Today

The United States exerts leadership on refugee issues in two principal ways: as a donor, and as a receiving country. As a donor, the US generally focuses on assistance and protection for the millions of refugees and displaced persons living in low-and-middle-income countries. As a host country, the focus is on policies regarding the admission and stay of those seeking protection within the United States. These policies are often seen as positive models for other countries. However, there are cases—such as the US policy of excluding Haitians and, more recently, the use of US public health legislation to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the border—that have served as models for deterrence policies for other governments.

The United States exerts leadership on refugee issues in two principal ways: as a donor, and as a receiving country.

US and International Refugee System

The United States remains the largest single contributor to international protection and assistance programs for refugees and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, through support for UNHCR, UNRWA, IOM, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or UNOCHA, the World Food Program, or WFP, and the principal nongovernmental organizations assisting displaced populations. The United States is the largest donor to UNHCR in absolute terms ($2.2 billion in 2022, up from $1.04 billion in 2013) and ranked 10th per capita.[xxiii] The United States also provides general support and earmarked funds for specific programs. Funding for UNRWA varies. The Trump administration withdrew all funding from the agency but under the Biden administration, the United States returned to its status as UNRWA’s largest donor, at about $343 million in 2022 alone.[xxiv] These numbers do not include the additional hundreds of millions spent on bilateral humanitarian assistance to governments and nongovernmental organizations, much of which is spent on displaced persons.

Funding for refugees and displaced persons comes from two principal US agencies: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, or PRM, which is part of the US State Department, and the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, or BHA (formerly the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance), part of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. In general, PRM is responsible for refugees and provides most of its support through multilateral organizations such as UNHCR, IOM, and UNRWA. BHA is responsible for IDPs and spends a higher proportion of its funding on bilateral assistance. As UNHCR and IOM have increased their support for internally displaced persons from conflict and natural disasters, the lines between the two donor agencies’ spheres of influence have blurred.

Beyond its funding, the United States also exerts leadership via its membership in the Executive Committee, or ExCom, of the UNHCR, and the governing councils of UNRWA and IOM, in addition to its essential role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The ExCom was established by the UN Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC, and formally came into existence on January 1, 1959. ExCom is composed of UN member states whom ECOSOC elects. ExCom's reports are submitted directly to the UN General Assembly, or UNGA; they do not substitute for policy guidance from ECOSOC and UNGA but play an important function in advising the High Commissioner of UNHCR, reviewing funds and programs, authorizing it to make appeals for funds, and approving proposed budget targets. Its membership has grown from 25 to more than 100 members since its founding.[xxv]

The United States plays an outsized role in ExCom. While it cannot always persuade other governments to follow its lead, the United States can often block resolutions it opposes. As the largest donor, the United States has a tremendous influence on UNHCR’s finances and thus holds sway on issues that directly or indirectly involve funding. More often, though, the United States attempts to influence UNHCR practice through a positive use of its resources and ideas. The US often uses ExCom to announce new initiatives to reform how UNHCR or its member states operate. For example, at the 2022 ExCom, Julieta Valls Noyes, Assistant Secretary for the BPRM, turned the microphone over to Basma Alawee, a refugee from Iraq and now a US citizen, “as proof of our dedication to elevating refugee voices.”[xxvi] During her remarks, Ms. Alawee emphasized her hope that “my participation today inspires the collective will of this body to create similar opportunities for meaningful engagement and partnership for refugee leaders across the world.”[xxvii]

As the largest donor, the United States has a tremendous influence on UNHCR’s finances and thus holds sway on issues that directly or indirectly involve funding. More often, though, the United States attempts to influence UNHCR practice through a positive use of its resources and ideas.

US leadership has also been exerted through direct action. For example, President Barack Obama convened a US Leaders’ summit during the 2016 General Assembly meetings to mobilize new commitments to the global refugee crisis. The announcement of this summit came immediately after the UN General Assembly decided to convene a high-level plenary on large movements of refugees and migrants in September 2016. While the UN meeting sought to improve multilateral responses to both refugees and migrants, the US initiative focused on three specific objectives with respect to refugees: 1) to increase humanitarian funding from $10 billion in 2015 to $13 billion in 2016, by identifying new donors and increasing donations among existing ones; 2) to double the number of refugees to be resettled, by identifying new resettlement countries, expanding the resettlement commitments of existing resettlement countries, and providing other legal channels for humanitarian admission when resettlement does not provide sufficient access; and 3) to facilitate refugee inclusion and self-reliance to “enable refugees to meet their own needs and contribute to communities that host them.”[xxviii] In this regard, the United States sought and received commitments for more educational and work opportunities for refugees worldwide.

Leading by Example

The United States exerts leadership through its policies for the admission of refugees and displaced persons. In some cases, the United States has been a model for favorable policies that promote protection and solutions, whereas, in others, it has been a model for policies that impede protection. 

Refugees and others in need of international protection come to the United States in multiple ways. As discussed above, the United States has long resettled refugees, granting them permanent admissions and a pathway toward citizenship.[xxix] Prior to the Trump years, the United States generally admitted 70% of all resettled refugees.[xxx] This record took a substantial hit during the Trump administration, and more than two years into the Biden administration has not fully recovered. In FY 2022, the United States admitted slightly more than 25,000 refugees, despite a 125,000 ceiling on admissions.[xxxi]

PRM and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, in the Department of Homeland Security, share responsibility for admitting refugees, while PRM and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, in the Department of Health and Human Services, share responsibility for assisting refugees once they arrive. The US resettlement program is open only to those who meet the definition of a refugee in the Refugee Act of 1980, which is similar to the UN Refugee Convention definition. The United States does not have a provision for admitting victims of civil war or armed conflict or of substantial human rights violations that do not fall under the Convention refugee definition. However, legislation does permit the designation as refugees of persons still inside their countries of origin if they otherwise meet the eligibility requirements, which allows the processing of refugees in countries of origin, and has occurred in the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, Haiti, and Cuba and, more recently, Central America, and Venezuela.[xxxii] US law also recognizes that persons who have suffered particularly serious forms of past persecution are eligible for admission, even if they are no longer at risk of future persecution.

In some cases, the United States has been a model for favorable policies that promote protection and solutions, whereas, in others, it has been a model for policies that impede protection. 

Refugees must demonstrate they have not already been granted asylum in another country and are subject to security and criminal checks. US legislation specifies that refugees who provided material support to a terrorist organization are ineligible for admission. Terrorist organizations are broadly defined to include most insurgent groups, regardless of whether they use terrorist means toward their goals. Because there is no exception for coercion, refugees who have been forced to provide material support or paid ransoms to terrorist organizations to free themselves or their relatives are inadmissible for entry into the United States unless a waiver is granted. Thousands of persons recognized as refugees are awaiting resettlement, often in very difficult circumstances, because security checks have not been completed.[xxxiii] Often, the problem is a lack of information to confirm that someone is not a security risk rather than credible documentation that the individual is a risk.[xxxiv]

Each year, the President, in consultation with Congress, determines how many refugees will be admitted and how that number will be allocated by region. The Biden administration has retained the 125,000 ceiling for FY 2023. There are four priority categories in FY 2023:

  • Priority 1: Individual cases referred by designated entities to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.
  • Priority 2: Groups of special concern designated by the State Department as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances, and apparent need for resettlement.
  • Priority 3: Individual cases granted access for purposes of reunification with family members already in the United States.
  • Priority 4: Individual cases from all nationalities referred by private sponsors in the United States that receive post-arrival support and services from those sponsors.[xxxv] The fourth priority is new for the United States. The program is loosely modeled on the Canadian private sponsorship program. In launching the program, the administration described it as a way to empower “everyday Americans to play a leading role in welcoming refugees arriving through the US Refugee Admissions Program and supporting their resettlement and integration as they build new lives in the United States.”[xxxvi]

In recent years, the Biden administration has responded to two major refugee crises outside the regular resettlement program. First, with the Taliban’s take-over of Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans with close ties to the United States would have faced considerable danger due to their association with the United States. The United States mounted an air evacuation in August 2021 and admitted about 80,000 Afghan nationals, mainly through the parole process.[xxxvii] Those granted parole are not entitled to apply for permanent residency and are encouraged to apply for asylum or follow another pathway to permanent status, as their temporary parole status only lasts two years. Efforts to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a permanent status, have not been successful to date. Also less successful have been efforts to admit Afghans who are still inside Afghanistan or stranded in other countries. More than 45,000 humanitarian parole applications have been submitted to USCIS, but as of June 2022, less than 5,000 had been fully adjudicated, and only 300 had been approved.[xxxviii] Adjudications required an in-person interview, which was impossible for those still in Afghanistan given the absence of a US government presence, and difficult for those able to reach another country. On a positive note, admitted Afghans are eligible for certain refugee resettlement services and may benefit from assistance from the Sponsor Circle program, a public/private initiative to facilitate the integration of Afghan individuals and families.[xxxix]

Second, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US responded to the refugee plight decisively. The humanitarian parole program for Ukrainians is similar to the Afghan one, with several key differences. The first wave of Ukrainians entered using tourist and business visas, allowing short stays in the United States. A few hundred came through the resettlement process, having applied years before the current conflict. Approximately 20,000 traveled visa-free to Mexico, requested asylum at the border, and were paroled into the country to pursue their claims, a policy that, as discussed below, was not available to asylum-seekers from other countries.[xl] This policy was superseded by the Uniting for Ukraine parole program, launched on April 25, 2022. Under this program, a person lawfully residing in the United States can sponsor a Ukrainian to be paroled into the United States. The sponsors must demonstrate an ability to support parolees financially and a commitment to assist the Ukrainians in finding shelter, enrolling children in school, applying for work authorization, and providing other forms of assistance. Parolees must have resided in Ukraine through February 11, 2022, and pass security vetting. As with the Afghan parolees, they are eligible for certain resettlement benefits but are not eligible for adjustment to permanent status unless they qualify for asylum or another pathway to a green card.[xli] 

The most problematic refugee protection issue in the United States pertains to asylum for those who spontaneously arrive in the country and claim refugee status. How the United States handles asylum applications arguably affects its influence on refugee protection worldwide. While US interdictions of Haitians seeking to enter the United States in the 1980s were one of the first attempts to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching US territory to apply for asylum, many other countries have subsequently introduced their own variations on the policy. From Australia’s Pacific solution[xlii] to the decision by the United Kingdom to transfer asylum-seekers arriving on its territory to Rwanda[xliii], high-income countries have become more creative in developing deterrence policies. The most recent US efforts in 2023 to deter arrivals on the US-Mexico border have been accompanied by efforts to broaden the scope of protection through programs to admit potential asylum seekers from within their countries of origin. 

The most problematic refugee protection issue in the United States pertains to asylum for those who spontaneously arrive in the country and claim refugee status. How the United States handles asylum applications arguably affects its influence on refugee protection worldwide.

At present, there are significant backlogs of asylum cases. In December 2022, USCIS reported 667,000 asylum cases awaiting adjudication, 1,100 of which were filed before 2012.[xliv] The recent large-scale movement of Central Americans, particularly unaccompanied minors and families with young children, as well as asylum seekers from further away, has stretched the capacity of the asylum system. As the countries of the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) saw significant increases in homicides and other forms of gang violence, many more Central Americans took the risk of transiting through Mexico to come to the United States.[xlv] The situation is not new. During the summer of 2014, President Obama called the arrival of about 70,000 unaccompanied minors a “humanitarian situation” that was straining resources for their care and adjudicating claims for relief from deportation.[xlvi] The administration was criticized for its policies regarding families with children who were detained for what appeared to be excessive periods. The situation only worsened under the Trump administration, which separated children from their families, and the government has been unable to reunify thousands of them with their relatives. Since then, the nationalities of those seeking protection in the United States have become more diverse, with large numbers of Venezuelans, Haitians, and Cubans, as well as increasing numbers of Asian and African migrants making their way through the Darien Gap, Central America, and Mexico to arrive at the US border.[xlvii]

Some of the policies intended to avert the arrival of asylum claimants are in the category of “sticks”—designed to deter asylum seekers from seeking entry, including mandatory detention and interdiction. US deterrence policies have been implemented in both Democratic and Republican administrations. One of the most dangerous, from the perspective of refugee protection, was the use of Title 42 of the US Public Health laws to expel those arriving at the US-Mexico border, including in some cases, deporting asylum seekers to their home countries. This policy began under the Trump administration and continued under the Biden administration until May 11, 2023.[xlviii]

Other asylum deterrence policies are arguably “carrots.” For example, in partial response to the Central American surge in applications, and in recognition of the dangers to transiting asylum seekers, the United States put in place an in-country processing system—halted by the Trump administration and restarted by the Biden administration—through which the children of parents already living in the United States could apply for refugee resettlement or other admissions programs from home, although the number of beneficiaries of this program is low.[xlix] Currently, there are plans to set up regional processing centers in Latin American countries to process refugees through the resettlement system and handle asylum claims.[l] 

On the positive side, the United States can be credited with demonstrating leadership regarding other aspects of asylum adjudications. For example, it has been a leader in establishing that fear of persecution by non-State actors can be a basis for asylum if the government of the country of origin is unwilling or unable to protect the applicant. The United States was also among the first countries to provide guidance to asylum adjudicators regarding gender-based persecution, issuing guidelines in 1995.[li] These guidelines focused on two aspects of gender and asylum—1) that persecution can be gendered, as in the case of rape and sexual abuse; and 2) persecution can be on account of gender, particularly in cases involving sexual orientation, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation.[lii] Because these are guidelines, not laws, government authorities have not been consistent in application. During the Trump administration, for example, the Attorney General used his authority to undermine protections on the basis of gender and non-state actor violence. 

On the positive side, the United States can be credited with demonstrating leadership regarding other aspects of asylum adjudications.

US legislation also authorizes persons whose countries of origin are experiencing conflict or natural disasters to remain in the country, even if they initially entered illegally. Temporary protected status, or TPS, applies to persons “in the United States who are temporarily unable to safely return to their home country because of ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions.”[liii] Environmental disaster may include “an earthquake, flood, drought, epidemic, or another environmental disaster in the state resulting in a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in the area affected.”[liv] In the case of environmental disasters, as compared to conflict, the country of origin must request the designation of temporary protected status for its nationals. One problem with TPS is that there is no effective way to end temporary status, either by granting permanent status or returning beneficiaries to their home countries. Often the conditions that triggered the designation of TPS remain in place long after the initial emergency. Currently, the TPS designation is still in effect for citizens of Honduras and Nicaragua (since 1998), El Salvador (2001), Somalia (2001), Sudan (2004), and Haiti (2010).[lv] More recently, new designations have been made for citizens of Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Venezuela, among others.[lvi] Moreover, TPS benefits people already in the United States rather than those experiencing harm related to the disaster.

Assessing US Leadership 

In general, the United States plays an active leadership role with regard to the assistance and protection of refugees and displaced persons. As discussed, the country remains the largest donor to the array of international organizations with responsibilities in this area. Generally, there has been bipartisan support for these contributions to humanitarian programs. Although, in recent years, all funding has seen significant cuts as pressure to reduce government spending has increased, the US refugee budget has remained largely intact. Despite previous controversies over its use for Syrians and others, there has been no effort to remove funding for the refugee resettlement program. These levels of funding, not only for UNHCR but also IOM, UNRWA, ICRC, and other humanitarian agencies, give the United States great power when setting the priorities of these organizations. 

Generally, there has been bipartisan support for these contributions to humanitarian programs. Although, in recent years, all funding has seen significant cuts as pressure to reduce government spending has increased, the US refugee budget has remained largely intact.

US funding provides multilateral and bilateral assistance, giving some discretion to international organizations to determine how best to meet the needs of refugees and displaced persons. At the same time, it has earmarked funds to encourage these agencies to address what the United States perceives as unmet needs, as evidenced by US advocacy for many years for the protection of refugee women and girls. 

The United States has pushed initiatives to expand protection for other at-risk populations, most recently migrants in countries in crisis. Only a handful of member states have taken on initiatives of this sort—the leadership of Norway and Switzerland on the Nansen Initiative Global Protection Agenda for those who cross borders in the context of natural disasters and the effects of climate change is an example. The US government took a keen interest in the case of Nansen and its successor, the Platform on Disaster Displacement (as well as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and others), but chose not to take on a leadership role. By contrast, in each of these situations, US nongovernmental organizations and experts played essential roles in providing guidance to the initiatives.[lvii]

The convening power of the US government has played an enormous role historically and continues to be one of the principal demonstrations of its leadership within the field. This power does not appear to have diminished, as witnessed by the response to President Obama’s decision to host a summit on refugees at the 2016 General Assembly. More than 50 governments, many represented by heads of state or government, attended the Leaders’ Summit—a significant achievement when considering that governments could attend only if they had made significant new commitments.[lviii] More recently, President Biden initiated work on the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed in the context of the Summit of the Americas in June 2022. The declaration commits signatories “to expand legal migration pathways, supports immigrant integration, invests in migration management, and coordinates responses to mass migration movements and displacement crises.”[lix] 

The convening power of the US government has played an enormous role historically and continues to be one of the principal demonstrations of its leadership within the field.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cautious about US leadership, particularly if a future president is not willing to take a positive leadership stance. While it is unlikely that the United States will soon lose its status as a principal donor, and one of the top strategists in tackling displacement issues, its ability to generate new resettlement offers is less clear, as is its ability to increase its resettlement levels. Whenever resettlement in the United States has been a political football rather than a testament to humanitarian, foreign policy, and domestic constituency interests, it has suffered. Continuing political leadership from the supporters of a robust resettlement effort will be essential if the program is to grow and respond efficiently and effectively to new demands.

While it is unlikely that the United States will soon lose its status as a principal donor, and one of the top strategists in tackling displacement issues, its ability to generate new resettlement offers is less clear, as is its ability to increase its resettlement levels.

The number of refugees resettled today is significantly lower than those of the early 1980s, and well below the current need for global resettlement. The multiple security checks imposed on applicants for resettlement leave applicants neither approved nor denied but instead awaiting clearance—a process that can take many years. The asylum system still has significant gaps, particularly in provisions such as interdiction, detention, arbitrary deadlines, and security checks that make them inaccessible for too many asylum seekers with credible claims for protection. 

What does all of this mean for US leadership in the global refugee system? By most measures, the United States is still the dominant power, measured by influence, money, or admission levels. Unlike in many other policy spheres, the United States has often preferred to operate through multilateral approaches in supporting protection and assistance for refugees and displaced persons. The US government has supported other governments that wish to take the lead in critical international initiatives to enhance protection. Having other prominent states take leadership roles is consistent with US strategy. That being said, there is little likelihood that significant changes in policies or shifts in refugee priorities would succeed without US agreement to these practices.

By most measures, the United States is still the dominant power, measured by influence, money, or admission levels. Unlike in many other policy spheres, the United States has often preferred to operate through multilateral approaches in supporting protection and assistance for refugees and displaced persons.

[i] An Act to Regulate the Admission of  Aliens to, and the Residence of Aliens in the United States, 1917 available at

[ii] Susan Martin (2021) A Nation of Immigrants: Second Edition. Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Public Law 203, Chapter 336, Refugee Relief Act of 1953, full text available at

[ix] Martin, A Nation of Immigrants

[x] The term parole has different connotations depending on context. Although it sometimes refers to the release of immigrants from federal custody, in this context, it “refers to the practice of letting a noncitizen physically into the country for immigration law purposes” (Motomura 2006:58). It applies in situations in which the noncitizen does not meet the requirements for admission. Still, the attorney general determines that for humanitarian, foreign policy or other reasons, he or she should be allowed to enter.

[xi] Public Law 85-3 16-Sept 11, 1957, full text available at

[xii] Concerned that emigration remained elusive for many religious minorities in the Soviet Union, particularly Soviet Jews, the United States passed legislation known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that prohibited normal trade relationships (referred to as Most Favored Nation status) with countries that prevented their citizens from exiting. Passed in 1974, the legislation remained in place until 2012.

[xiii] The organization that was most affected was the International Labor Organization, which had robust membership from Communist countries. ILO had been actively involved since its establishment in 1919 with finding employment for displaced persons but was not eligible for US funding for such programs in the 1950s.

[xiv] Martin, A Nation of Immigrants

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Gene M. Lyons, “American Policy and the United Nations' Program for Korean Reconstruction.” International Organization, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1958), pp. 180-192: 181

[xvii] Ibid: 182

[xviii] Gene M. Lyons, “American Policy and the United Nations' Program for Korean Reconstruction, International Organization, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1958), pp. 180-192

[xix] Gil Loescher, “UNHCR’s Origins and Early History:  Agency, Influence, and Power in the Global Refugee System,” Refuge, vol. 33, no. 1, March 2017. 

[xx] Martin, A Nation of Immigrants

[xxi] Support for admission of those forced to flee after assisting US military personnel remains high amongst veterans as well as humanitarian organizations See Ken Olsen. 2022. ‘A moral obligation to get them out of there’

American Legion, published FEB 04, 2022. Available at

[xxii] Martin, A Nation of Immigrants

[xxiii] UNHCR. 2022. Donor Rankings. Available at

[xxiv] UNRWA. 2022. Overall Donor Rankings. Available at

[xxv] UNHCR. 2022. UNHCR Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme - Composition for the period October 2022-October 2023. Available at

[xxvi] Julieta Valls Noyes, United States – UNHCR 73rd ExCom Plenary Statement, UN Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, October 10, 2022 available at

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] U.S. State Department, Strengthening the International Response to the Global Refugee Crisis: Fact Sheet of the Office of the Spokesperson, Washington, DC, January 22, 2016 available at  For a summary of results of the Summit, see:

[xxix] In the United States, refugees have a one-year conditional admission and apply for permanent resident status after that period.

[xxx] Martin, A Nation of Immigrants

[xxxi]Refugee Council USA, U.S. Refugee Admissions, 2022 Fiscal Year. Available at

[xxxii] Stephen Legomsky, “Refugees, Asylum and the Rule of Law in the USA.” In Susan Kneebone, Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Rule of Law: Comparative Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009).

[xxxiii] Andrew I Schoenholtz, and Jennifer Hojaiban. International Migration and Anti-Terrorism Laws and Policies: Balancing Security and Refugee Protection, (Institute for the Study of International Migration, Transatlantic Perspectives on Migration, Policy Brief No. 4, 2008).

[xxxiv] During a field visit to Amman Jordan in January 2012, the author interviewed Iraqi refugees in this situation. They had met all requirements for admission to the United States but no decision had been made on their security clearance.

[xxxv] U.S. State Department, Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2023, September 8, 2022. Available at

[xxxvi] US State Department, Fact Sheet – Launch of Welcome Corps- Private Sponsorship of Refugees, January 19, 2023. Available at

[xxxvii] Some of the evacuated Afghans already had green cards and others had been approved for resettlement or Special Immigrant Visa holders for those who worked for the US government. See Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter, Welcoming Afghans and Ukrainians to the United States: A Case in Similarities and Contrasts, Migration Policy Institute, July 2022,, for more information

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Sponsor Circles. 2023. Sponsor Circles Resources. Available at

[xl] Chisti and Bolter. Welcoming Afghans and Ukrainians

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] For more information, see Refugee Council of Australia, Australia’s asylum policies, 1 March 2021, Available at

[xliii] For more information, see BBC News, What is the UK's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda? July 12, 2023. Available at

[xliv]Letter from USCIS Director Ur Jaddou to Representative Andy Bar, 17 February 2023.

[xlv]UNHCR Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection. Washington, DC: UNHCR (2014).

[xlvi] White House. 2014. Letter from the President -- Efforts to Address the Humanitarian Situation in the Rio Grande Valley Areas of Our Nation’s Southwest Border. Office of the Presse Secretary.

[xlvii] Department of Homeland Security. 2023. Humanitarian or Significant Public Benefit Parole for Individuals Outside the United States. Available at

[xlviii] John Gramlich. 2022. Key facts about Title 42, the pandemic policy that has reshaped immigration enforcement at U.S.-Mexico border (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center)

[xlix] Department of Homeland Security 2023. American Minors (CAM) Program. Available at

[l] Andrew Selee 2023. Regional Processing Centers: Can This Key Component of the Post-Title 42 U.S. Strategy Work?. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute

[li] Martin, Susan. Refugee Women: Second Edition (Lantham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004)

[lii] Ibid

[liii] U.S. Immigration Act of 1990

[liv] Ruth Ellen Wasem and Karma Ester. Temporary Protected Status: Current Immigration Policy and Issues (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2011)

[lv]   In 2007, TPS ended for Liberians, but the Administration decided to grant Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for those who had had Temporary Protected Status. 

[lvi] Mohamad Moslimani, How Temporary Protected Status has expanded under the Biden administration, Pew Research Center, April 21, 2023 


[lvii] Based on the authors’ observation of US participation in these events.


[lviii] Mary Pascaline 2016. Obama’s Refugee Summit: Leaders Gather To Tackle Humanitarian Crisis. International Business Times. July 14.


[lix] Andrew Selee. The Los Angeles Declaration Could Represent a Big Step for Real Migration Cooperation across the Americas, Migration Policy Group Commentaries, June 10, 2022


Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative

The Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative (RAFDI) provides evidence-based analyses that translate research findings into practice and policy impact. Established in 2022 as a response to an ever-increasing number of people forcibly displaced from their homes by protracted conflicts and persecution, RAFDI aims to expand the space for new perspectives, constructive dialogue and sustainable solu­tions to inform policies that will improve the future for the displaced people.  Read more